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Life's Just a Bowl of Milk and Cookies

All Goodby and Silverstein Have to Do Is Stay the Coolest to Keep Their Ad Agency the Hottest in America

May 05, 1996|Warren Berger | Warren Berger's last piece for the magazine was on Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks

It began, as things often do in advertising, with a betrayal. Joanna Hughes Brach, who oversees advertising for Polaroid, the Cambridge, Mass.-based photographic company, was almost out the door for a maternity leave last summer when she received a phone call. Her New York advertising agency, BBDO, informed her that it was ditching Polaroid just as the company was planning to start its biggest campaign in decades. To make matters worse, BBDO was pursuing archrival Kodak. Brach was stunned but had no time to waste; her pregnancy due date had arrived, and she had one day to assemble a "wish list" of potential agencies to replace BBDO. At the top, she wrote Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

Though that name means little to people outside advertising, Brach knew that Goodby, Silverstein was perhaps the most sought-after ad agency in America. Based in San Francisco and run by Jeffrey Goodby and Rich Silverstein--a couple of shaggy-haired men who look like Haight-Ashbury holdovers--the agency has in recent years dominated national advertising award shows with its clever commercials, including the "Got Milk?" series.

Goodby, Silverstein was hot. Polaroid, on the other hand, was not. Since it popularized instant photography and became a household name 20 years ago, the brand had been eclipsed by competing photographic companies and nearly forgotten by the American public.

So Brach decided to give Goodby, Silverstein a try, but to play it safe, Polaroid invited several other agencies to join in a free-for-all competition to produce new commercials. Thus began a nine-month process during which Goodby, Silverstein, in its quest to find the perfect pitch for Polaroid, would endure trips to police stations, a batch of nude photos, a parade of sad-eyed dogs, many long working weekends, a group viewing of "Melrose Place" and various other indignities before producing a batch of striking commercials. During much of that time, as the agency hammered out idea after idea, there was no assurance that it would be hired.

Still, the assignment was irresistible. The company thrives on tough marketing challenges and fierce competition, a characteristic that allowed it to triple in size over the past four years and become "arguably America's best agency" according to AdWeek. "We saw this as a chance to take a great American brand that has fallen and bring it back to life," says SIlverstein, the agency's 46-year-old co-founder. "For us, this is what it's all about."

Goodby, SIlverstein & partners' cramped headquarters, in an old red-brick warehouse near fisherman's Wharf, is the "ER" of the marketing world. Brands that are ailing--some sluggish, some nearly comatose--are wheeled in, whereupon Goodby and Silverstein survey the damage and mix up a batch of creative commercials. The agency's advertising blends science and art--sophisticated forms of research in the hands of a cadre of young, talented writers and artists who infuse offbeat humor, layered meanings and cutting-edge film technique into the campaign. "More than anyone else today, they know how to bring together all the elements of a good commercial," says Advertising Age reviewer Bob Garfield.

They are master diagnosticians. When Norwegian Cruise Line approached Goodby, Silverstein, it was adrift in a sea of look-alike cruise competitors, all relying on festive song-and-dance commercials. The agency produced a sophisticated and sexually suggestive black-and-white ad campaign that positioned the cruise line as a sensuous yuppie dreamboat, and helped the company achieve the highest occupancy growth in the business last year. When Sega, the video game company, found itself falling further and further behind rival Nintendo, Goodby, Silverstein prescribed a series of bizarre, anarchic commercials (one featured a teenager beating himself on the head with a dead squirrel, which eventually screams "Sega!"). Before long, Sega was the market leader. For the struggling Japanese auto maker Isuzu, the agency injected dramatic, cinematic scenes into the car company's commercials, and record-setting sales periods followed.

Perhaps the agency's most surprising turnaround job was not for a brand, but for milk, a product that would seem to defy attempts at hype. When the California Milk Processors Board came to the agency three years ago, milk consumption in the state had been declining for 20 years even as attempts were made by milk marketers to sell the cholesterol-filled product as health food (the old slogan: "It does a body good").

Jeff Goodby understood that consumers weren't buying the line and chose instead to focus on the real relationship people have with milk. Upon meeting the client, he slipped him a piece of paper with two words on it: "Got Milk?"

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